Some smart speakers are a bit too smart for their own good

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The ancient mystical image of a serpent swallowing its tail is called an ouroboros. It symbolizes the endless cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. What do you call an Alexa smart speaker that swallows itself? Progress?

Ray Lum lives in Arlington, where he uses his Amazon Alexa to listen to music, get weather updates and to nag with questions like “Where does the light go when you flip the switch?” what radius doesn’t do is use Alexa to listen to the news on WTOP. For this, he uses a technology that would be familiar to him Guglielmo Marconiif the late Italian inventor was somehow reanimated and dropped off in Ray’s kitchen: Ray turns on the radio in his breakfast nook.

There is a promotional advertisement airing on WTOP in which a voice proclaims, “We know you listen to WTOP for the latest news, traffic and weather on your commute, but what about when you’re at home?” Listening to WTOP on your smart speaker is easy. Just say “Alexa, open WTOP” or “Ok Google, play WTOP”. ”

When those magic words come out of Ray’s kitchen radio, that’s exactly what happens: the two smart speakers in his other rooms come to life and play WTOP.

“That’s when I have to go out into the living room and dining room to mute my smart speakers,” Ray said.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the machines talk to each other. Not long ago I bought a new washer and dryer. Among the setup instructions was a section on how to control them with an app on my phone. I didn’t bother to download it. (It might have been a different story had they offered a “Find My Sock” app.)

Nowadays, we all live in a Philip K. Dick short story. Androids may not dream of electric sheep, but Alexa sleeps with one ear open, always listening for her “wake word.” To prevent this from happening by accident, advertisers can equip their radio or TV ads with an audio watermark, the so-called acoustic fingerprint.

This technique was in the news in 2019, when there were Super Bowl ads for various smart speaker products. As Amazon described it at the time: “To produce an acoustic fingerprint, we first derive a grid of logarithmic filter bank energies (LFBEs) for the acoustic signal, which represent the amounts of energy in several overlapping frequency bands in a series of overlapping energies. time windows.

Amazon says its Echo devices can also compare to known instances when “Alexa” is used in media. The company is asking advertisers to provide the ad to Amazon 12 days before it begins to air so they can work their audio magic. WTOP tells me they haven’t.

And Amazon tells me Echo users can choose other wake words, including “Echo,” “Computer,” “Amazon,” and “Ziggy.” To do this, say “Alexa, change the wake word” or use the Alexa app. As always with technology, humans have to adapt.

Says Ray: “It’s a minor irritation, but it still bothers me.”

This is the best place to point out that The Washington Post belongs to the founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos.

On Memorial Day afternoon, about two dozen people gathered in the scorching sun at the corner of 16th Street and Alaska Avenue NW to grab some history. A plaque was unveiled celebrating the district’s first memorial to residents killed in World War I.

It was an echo of a ceremony held on May 30, 1920, when a crowd gathered there to dedicate 530 maple trees planted on both sides of 16th Street, from Alaska Avenue to Varnum Street. Sunk into the ground at the base of each tree was a small concrete plinth with a tiny copper nameplate affixed to it.

The weather and the elements – not to mention lawn mowers and errant automobiles – have not been kind to these little markers. Only a few traces remain. The new plaque tells the story of the earlier memorial and lists the names of all the war dead. The project was supervised by Barbara Bates and William Brown of the Association of Older Residents of the District of Columbia (AOI). Financial support was provided by AOI, the District Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and DC Water.

Why DC Water? This corner houses a pumping station which was remodeled a few years ago. The plaque is affixed to a beautiful brick retaining wall.


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